Sunday, May 22, 2016

The Happiness Pause

I watched Brooklyn again last night. It was my favourite film of 2015, not least because I was facing the decision of totally embracing my new life or returning to the comfort of the familiar. 

Like Eilis in Ireland, I had a light-bulb moment in Wales of  “I’d forgotten”, when a small-minded individual made some comments that were a salient reminder of why I’d crossed the Atlantic in the first place.
I have a wonderful career in the UK, and fantastic friends and family; but I’ve always sought new experiences, cultures and people. I think it’s what every writer worth their salt does – Scott Fitzgerald, D H Lawrence, Ernest Hemingway. Okay, they ended up dying of alcoholism, TB and suicide, but you can’t have everything. Travel takes it out of you.
So, I’ve been four days in my new LA abode and tomorrow I fly back to New York. I’m looking forward to it: a screening on Tuesday with Welsh friends, a party to celebrate the June issue of W42ndSt (the Hell’s Kitchen magazine for which I write a monthly column), and a meet-up with an artist friend over from the UK on Thursday. Plus, I’ll see my beloved sunsets over the Hudson after nearly three weeks away.
I’ve been enjoying a break following the sale of my house in Cardiff, and while I won’t be rushing back to Salt Lake City in a hurry, it’s been a much needed relaxing time, laughing with mega clever, funny friends (all Brits) and sleeping right through the night for the first time in years.
It’s been a time in which I’ve allowed myself to be happy. I use the word “allow” carefully, as the nature of happiness sometimes carries a lot of baggage: guilt, when one sees the extent of suffering the world; trepidation, because all happiness is at some point countered by its ugly twin, sadness; and also darkness - fear for the future, that one may never re-experience the intensity of joy.
The writer and art critic Guillaume Apollinaire said: “Now and then it's good to pause in our pursuit of happiness and just be happy.” So that’s what I’ve been doing. Talking, looking at trees (the purple jacundas are at their most glorious in LA at the moment), walking and playing. 

Yes, playing. 

My friends Karl and Richard, who live in LA, treated me to a flight experience – in Karl’s living room. Insisting on strapping me in my seat, they lifted the sofa and shook it for turbulence; upon landing, I was detained by Customs and put in a cell . . . You had to be there, really.
It’s fun being a child again. Although I don’t have children (and absolutely no regrets there), I love them: their ability to live in the moment, even though at such an early age the fears that will be their future are present: two girls in New York, throwing their tiny hands to their mouths in horror when they saw a dead bird on the street; a boy in LA recoiling in disgust at some cigarette butts in a sand bin. But also, the abandonment that is the essence of a lack of expectation: a group in the late afternoon Californian sun, throwing a ball, their effortless laughter in a jacunda of calm.
I love laughter. Despite a difficult few years, I have never stopped laughing. I am blessed to have so many really funny friends, from all walks of life. To quote Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick: “I know not all that may be coming, but be it what it will, I'll go to it laughing.”
No, none of us know what is coming; if we did, we’d probably jump off the nearest bridge to save ourselves the trouble of facing it. But we are resilient beings. We have words to help us make sense of life; we have empathy in our souls; and we have each other.
And so, moving on: thank you to everyone who has seen me through and given me such support in oh, so many ways. I might be hit by a bus this afternoon (I’ll try not to be), but at the moment I’m living for the laughter – the pause of happiness. 

Just don’t make me watch The Revenant again.  


Monday, May 16, 2016

Out of the Woods

I cannot think of a more lonely way to end one’s life than surrender to the sea. 

The news of writer Sally Brampton’s suicide last week is heartbreaking at so many levels, but those last steps are the most horrible even to contemplate.
My friend Angharad chose the same method: sitting on a rock on a freezing January night on Penarth seafront, waiting for the waves to swallow her. The image still haunts me.
I have suffered from depression, as many have, but at this point am in a very good place. It’s been an incredibly tough seven years financially (which I’ve written about), but still nothing that pushed me to the point of wanting to end it all; because if there is one thing that now frightens me more than life continuing, it’s the thought of it ending. It’s rushing by so quickly, I can’t bear the thought of all the things and people I will never get to see or meet. I suspect that’s how the myth of everlasting life came about.
I remember when my friend Jonathan committed suicide many years ago, I wept the most when I listened to Mozart’s Requiem shortly after. The knowledge that he would never again experience it filled me with sorrow; ever after, when I reached rock bottom, the grain of hope that was the absence of Mozart pulled me through.
Yes, I know it’s not that simple, and that depression is the Monster in the House (to use Blake Snyder’s film term) that is always lurking. But it’s why I try to store up the good in order to prepare me for the bad.
I am no longer a religious person, but I still love the teachings of Jesus – be good to one another, damnit! How hard can that be? I especially love the parables – apart from the one about the Rich Fool.
So, in summary: the rich fool’s idea is to store up as much grain as he can in his barn, and eat, drink and be merry for evermore. God’s having none of it. His reasoning is that the man may die tonight and everyone else will benefit from that which he was saving for himself (Tip of the day: Never turn to God on the subject of material possessions; he’s never going to approve of that new iPad).
There is, nevertheless, a nice metaphor in there on the subject of storing things up. Despite the Seven Year Bitch, as I call it, I didn’t die (always a bonus) and was still able to enjoy so much through friends and travel: the emotional grain you store up that will be the resource to get you through the next emotional famine.
My life changed completely three weeks ago when, after four years, my house in Cardiff finally sold. I won’t pretend that it wasn’t emotionally difficult, and many tears were shed. Was I doing the right thing? Why was I parting with the thing I had worked so hard to get? What’s life all about anyway?
But on Wednesday, I take the keys to my new Los Angeles apartment. I lived in the city for six years and, when I moved to New York two years ago, held on to the dream of being bi-coastal. New York is wonderful April to June, but a monster November to February; Los Angeles is great all year round, but there are only six months of the year that it is humanly possibly to listen to actors and directors pontificate about meetings and jobs they will never get.
I’ve lived in two places most of my adult life: London, Cardiff, Bath, Paris, Marbella – and, at one point, in four of them at the same time. I have no idea why. I suspect I have a very low boredom threshold that applies to people, as well as places: bring me an act, or you’re gone. It doesn’t have to be an all singing, all dancing act, but you have to bring something to the table: even silence (actually, especially silence, if I’m the act).
I’ve just enjoyed one of the best weeks of my life – debt free, great people, laughter so hearty the people at the next table thought I was having a stroke – and if it all went tomorrow, I’ve still had a better life than most people in the world. Most of the time, I don't know how anyone can bear not to be me. Now that's happiness.
The support from people, and especially those in social networking during these difficult times, has been phenomenal; I really would not have survived without it: family, friends, strangers. To quote Hebrews: my cup runneth over. Truly (some of it’s okay, this Bible lark).
While the phrase “You’re so lucky” has been bandied about (and I know it’s not in a malicious way), luck really has very little to do with it. The people who have seen me struggle for so long will know that my current existence has come at a price, both financial and emotional.
There will doubtless be new obstacles and pressures ahead but, as the genius Czech poet Rainer Maria Rilke said: 

“The purpose of life is to be defeated by greater and greater things.”
Where there’s breath, there’s hope. 

And Mozart.

Monday, April 25, 2016

A Right Royal Letdown at Regal

I haven’t seen any dancing in the streets with the news that rice and legumes are now acceptable foodstuffs to eat during Passover. None of my Jewish friends are breaking out in an excited sweat and rushing for the red lentil stew.
Despite being an atheist, I am totally respectful of anyone’s faith and some observances that are attached to it (by no means all); but anything that tells me what I can put into my stomach, and when, is never going to get my religious vote. I have friends who give up things they really enjoy for Lent, and they go through hell. In fact, hell would be a walk in the park compared to what they go through when giving up alcohol for Jesus. 

Now, excuse me for being picky, but I’m pretty sure Jesus had wine at the Last Supper, which would have taken place during this period, so quite why Christians decided that going teetotal would absolve them of their sins is anybody’s guess.
This week, I had my own little contretemps with an establishment trying to dictate the contents of my stomach when I went to see a movie.
Over a year ago, when Regal cinemas decided to start serving alcohol, they announced that profits had rocketed. Good for them. I’m pretty sure that wine is better for you than Coca Cola (just ask Jesus), so it seemed as if Regal had moved into the 21st century.
But, I discovered, it’s not that simple. When I went up to the counter at their Battery Park establishment, I was second in line, but it took a good five minutes for the person in front of me to be served. She had ID, was donned with a wristband, which was then marked by the server, and, out of earshot, I could conclude only that the woman was a VIP.
Not so. When I asked for two beers, I was told I was allowed just one, even though I was buying for my friend, who was already in the cinema. Next, I had to produce my passport (luckily, I carry it with me at all times, as we Brits are not required to carry ID cards). My bottle of Stella was poured into a plastic cup, but before it was handed over, I had to have a wristband, on which I noticed two circles.
“What are those for?” I innocently asked. 

“That one is for your first, and that one for your second drink,” I was advised, as a condemnatory big black X was placed in the first.
“So people can buy just two drinks a night?”
“Yes, but you can come back tomorrow and have another two.” Geez. Thanks.
I asked if it was because the cinema is almost next door to the World Trade Center and these were extra security measures, but was informed that no, Regal has a strict two-drink-per-person policy when it comes to alcohol. How old do I look? Seven?
I’ve never once thought about having alcohol in the cinema. I don’t drink sugary drinks and hate the smell, not to mention the noise of popcorn; I go to the cinema to watch a movie. But on a hot day and feeling thirsty, I really fancied a beer. When I was told I was allowed only two, I wanted three. Of course.
When I went back for my second drink (you'll find out why shortly), I had to go through the whole ID rigmarole yet again, even though my wristband was clearly evidence that my ID had already been monitored.
In Britain, we would call this kind of policy-making part of the “nanny state” that dictates to adults how they should behave in situations in which the government claims to know better. While I know that over-imbibing of alcohol causes all sorts of problems, personally, professionally and socially, I have never, in over 50 years of cinema going, seen one person drunk and misbehaving. I’ve seen loads of kids, high on sugar from soft drinks, misbehaving, but never adults.
You can’t have it both ways, Regal. If you’re going to serve alcohol, serve it; but don’t hold up queues with people who are in a hurry to take their seats, by policing everyone with ID and wristbands and holding them to ransom by zealous alcohol monitors.
It would be easier just not to serve alcohol at all. I’m pretty sure most people can go 90 or so minutes without having to take a drink (although not if watching The Revenant; even two vineyards were not enough to get me through that hell); heck, I’ve been known to go months. And for people who can’t, I’m pretty certain they’ll just smuggle it in – because, and here’s another thing, Regal: $13 for a plastic glass of really shitty wine? 

You’re taking the piss, as well as serving it.
But of course, it’s all about profit and, having found a lucrative hole in the market, the cinema chain is exploiting it. Their “rules” are merely a way of justifying to themselves that they are acting responsibly. They’re not. Alcohol, candy, Coke . . . the cinema is an artery waiting to burst.
So you can keep your wristbands and your circles and your overpriced drinks, as I’m happy to go to an alcohol free establishment in which I can buy my bottled water and take my seat without feeling like a criminal.
And, while we’re at it, here’s another thing. How about you spend some of those profits on lighting up your stairs better, so that by the time I reach my seat I haven’t lost three quarters of my Stella en route and have to return for my second circle?
If Hugh Glass thought he had life tough wrestling that grizzly bear in The Revenant, he should try negotiating with Regal for two Stellas. 

His experience was small beer by comparison.


Wednesday, April 13, 2016

The Price of Freedom

The noose has gone.

I’m waking up without a mortgage. 

For the first time in 30 years, I’m waking up without a mortgage. The relief is enormous. It’s also sad, because I don’t have a house, which was what I believed was my prize possession for many years of hard work. But my blood pressure, which had rocketed to a dangerous 156/106 is down to 120/82. I have gone from a six bedroom house in Cardiff to a one bedroom apartment in New York. I could not be happier. 
Before Christmas last year, I was rushed to A & E (well, I say rushed - the ambulance took three hours to get to me) with a non-stop nose bleed. I had returned from the US for Christmas to spend time in Bristol with my mother, who was due to undergo radiotherapy following a recurrence (although not secondary, thank goodness) of breast cancer. I’ve spent every Christmas with Mum, bar one, ever since my Dad died in 1990, and it really is no chore. I love seeing her and her dog Maddie, and despite the hassle that Christmas brings, it’s still a magical time of year for me. 
But this one began with my spending two days in hospital with what turned out to be stress-related hypertension; I literally had burst a blood vessel. You can lose a lot of blood in 48 hours - more than I even thought I had in me - and, as this was my first ever hospital stay, I was frightened.
I nevertheless made some important decisions while lying there, the main one being that even if I had to take a big hit on my house, which had been on the market for four years, I would do it. The mortgage and bills had been a drain since 2009, when I lost my lucrative job as TV critic on the Mail on Sunday. While I still had my Soapwatch column in Weekend magazine on the Daily Mail, I had been living comfortably on two salaries that were now reduced to one. 
I could have - probably should have - stayed in the house until it was sold, and after two years spending much of my time in LA, I returned to Cardiff with the intention of doing just that. However, a burglary in the middle of the night while I was watching TV in my living room, freaked me out, and I barely spent a night in the house after that. I returned to LA from where, two years ago, I moved to New York. 

Yes, I know that people will say that I incurred an unnecessary expense in doing that, but I’ve always been a risk taker, and I operate better in the US than I do in the UK. The latter is still my base and my legal home, but as an older woman, New York offers a lifestyle that is non-ageist, fun, and packed with more activities and people than one could ever hope to experience and encounter in one lifetime. 
The only thing that has prevented me from enjoying it as much as I might have has been the lack of money - some weeks, no money for food or even toilet paper. Yes, that bad. But I held on, avoided bankruptcy, and now, hopefully, the Seven Year Bitch as I’ve taken to calling it is at an end.
I didn’t have the exhilaration I thought I would, though. Yes, selling the house was a relief; clearing debts an even greater one. But last night, I was in tears. We invest so much in bricks and mortar; we build our nests around us; our stuff accumulates over many years and gives us pleasure, excitement, even a sense of worth as we find ourselves able to afford bigger and better.
The meaninglessness of that stuff became apparent when I tried to sell so much of it. I had to throw away most of my books - in the ease of the Kindle world, nobody wants the printed page anymore; I couldn’t even give the things away. The same with my old TVs and speaker systems - all of them great quality, Panasonic and Sony, but too big now for the world of the slimline electronic revolution. 
Clothes went to charity shops, furniture to friends and the new occupants; jewellery and old video cameras (who needs to carry a brick around when an iPhone does the job better?) had to be binned. 
The things I wanted to keep have gone into storage, and, as I have been living more simply for some time, I doubt I will miss any of them. As I look around my apartment, I have the basics - bed, desk, sofa, one bookcase (I know - how quaint; you never know, they might make a comeback), cooking equipment and utensils, and, of course, my beloved Apple desktop and laptop. I look out over the Hudson to New Jersey and, in a few hours, will watch the sun set over the river and marvel, as I always do, at the beauty of nature.
The sun is bright today, and it’s finally getting warmer. I’m going to walk to Central Park and feel the spring air as if for the first time, without the chaos of sums that don’t add up tearing around my brain as they have done for so many years. 

I will look up at the sky, which in this city is the purest blue punctured only by the glorious buildings that send the eye always reaching upwards. 

I’m going to have lunch out and not worry about whether that second glass of wine is a luxury I can ill afford. 
Most of all, I’m going to think about the family, friends and even complete strangers, whose friendship, love and support, both emotional and practical, has been central to my survival; because all the stuff in the world cannot compensate for the essence of humanity that makes people care for one another and reach out to those in need.
Becoming mortgage free was a practical solution to what had become an insurmountable problem. 

The enormous debt I owe to the people around me is something I can never hope to repay. 


Tuesday, March 15, 2016

The Art of Graphophobia and Turning Pages

There is a name for every phobia imaginable, including “fear of peanut butter sticking to the roof of the mouth” - Arachibutyrophobia. Weird as it sounds, I can understand this one. I’ve never liked peanut better because of its cloying dryness, although I think that my condition is fear of it sticking to my arteries.
There is not, however, a listed phobia for what I discovered today when clearing out my upstairs office. It’s not the one I work in, but it has served very well over the years as a storage area for supplies - well, three areas to be precise (it’s a big house).
I clearly have a fear of running out of paper. I could open my own Ryman store with the amount of paper up there. Small notebooks - plastic-bound, leather-bound, cardboard-bound - and every size and shape of writing paper: lined, blank, A4, A5, Post-It notes, big writing cards, little writing cards, blank and lined, exercise books I took with me when I left my teaching job in the Bishop of Llandaff - in 1983, for goodness sake! Who keeps a stash of blank exercise books for 33 years? But there they are - ten E J Arnold olive green books, now a little faded at the edges. 
I’ve always liked writing in exercise books and, in the States, buy the same ones when I go to Staples, where every day they have more irresistible bargains, and none more glorious than the five pack boxes of A5 (the US equivalent of our A4). Yes, I have another paper stash in New York - rows of empty exercise books (and a lot filled with writing, too), and more paper - for ink printing, photo printing, note-taking. 

When I first moved to the States, I took ten five ream boxes of A4 and, now that I have run out, I have a fear - no, terror - of having, finally, to convert to A5. Then there is the Staples stash currently sitting in a Los Angeles storage unit, too. I think I would be happy renting a shelf to live on in Staples. 
But, upon investigation, there is no named phobia for fear of running out of paper. There is fear of running out of toilet paper (Endrollphobia), and fear of paper (Papyrophobia); there’s also fear of writing (Graphophobia), which I obviously don’t have (I have a fear of not writing, but I think that’s just called work avoidance), and  fear of running out of reading material (Abibliophobia). Given the thousands of books I am having to get rid of, I think I might have had that one for many years, but appear to be getting over it during this move. 
Not all of the paper in my possession is blank. There are boxes of ‘A’ Level notes and essays for English and History, my ‘O’ Level art paintings (all designs copied from How to Draw), university notes and essays, thousands of handwritten newspaper articles, and more half- written plays, books and stories than I could ever have believed possible even from the most prolific writers. Why didn’t I finish any of them? A cursory glance gives me the answer to that. I was a veritable little Sylvia Plath (in temperament, not talent) in the making. I half expected a razor blade to fall out of the pages.
Then there are the diaries, going back as far as 1977. Acres of angst over men, worry over exams, concerns over health, and even a letter written to my mother in 1983, telling her of my money worries and how, once I wrote that big novel, all would be well in the financial coffers.
Thirty three years on, little has changed, at least in relation to men and money. Paper is a recorder of emotions, and writing something down doesn’t change the fundamental you. Have I really learned so little since that 19 year old self wrote about her tears, crying over an unavailable man? (No, I haven’t). But there, on 1st December 1977, is the editor of the university magazine, Link, who came to see me in my halls of residence after I submitted a piece for their Letters page. 

And here’s the entry: “ He said that the letter I’d written wasn’t like a student’s; they’d thought it was a lecturer. He said it was very unusual to find a girl who could write with such punch.” I remember being thrilled. Patronising git, I’d say now. So I have learnt something.
So, while I haven’t made much cognitive progress with men, I can say that the paper trail has grown, and the decades of words I’ve written have given me opportunities I could never have imagined when I made that entry during my first year at Cardiff University. I have been lucky enough to write for the smartest people in journalism, and still do; it wasn’t easy, by any means, but that’s a struggle I’ll save for another day.
Yes, I am sure I have a fear of running out of paper, because it is my life. Every word I put on every sheet is a privilege - a privilege to be part of the family into which I was lucky enough to be born, a privilege of a great education paid for by the State, the privilege of having been born with a skill that really was the luck of the draw that so many are denied. 
My fear now is not one of running out of paper, but of running out of time in which to fill those empty spaces. 

But panic aside, the blank pages before me today are tomorrow’s story: a story that has yet to be written. 

Only fate will decide when the final page dictates The End.


Monday, March 14, 2016

Storage with Benefits

I lost it. 

Most of the time, I deal with the idea of selling up pretty well. It’s a practical decision, as well as a financial one, given that I spend most of my time in the States. I’m resigned to leaving my house, as I really enjoy the simplicity of living in a much smaller place in New York that has 24/7 security and fantastic views over the Hudson, where the exquisite sunsets can move you to tears. 

And I have a life that is rich with friendship, music and literature, in addition to restaurants and bars where a single woman of my age is not treated as a social leper. I’ve even learnt to speak American – and it’s a lot harder than you think; certainly more difficult than French. 

But yesterday, I cracked. Attending the 90th birthday party of my friend’s mother, I met up with so many people who were in my life over 30 years ago during my ballroom dancing years as an adult (I had been a competition dancer as a child, too). I was sitting at a table with Paula Goodyear, whose Bath dancing school was the centre of my social life when I lived in the city. 

I remembered the smell of polish at the top of the stairs, which was when you first heard the music from the ballroom. I recalled Boxing Day mornings, which were the highlight of my Christmas. A trip to Antwerp, when the bus had to stop every half hour so that I could empty my tiny bladder, an event that earned me the nickname “Taffy Leak” from Paula’s mother.

I was sitting next to my mother, who is nowhere near 90, but the day inevitably made me think about aging and the inevitability of losing the people we love. When the waiters who had been serving us transformed into a musical singing duet, I went. Completely. Show tunes just do it for me. They transform me to a world in which raw emotion is everything – the here and now, and I am always lost in the occasion whenever I listen to a musical. 

I don’t have quite the same experience watching some of them. I love Blood Brothers, but when I saw it in London’s West End, the key scene was ruined when one of the brothers pulled a gun, and a strong Welsh accent from behind me, said, way too loudly: “Ooh, God, ’e’s about to shoot ’im!”

But you can’t beat a good show tune. Yesterday, what set me off was This is the Moment. I love it. I sing it. I think I’ve heard every recording of it ever made . . . in fact, I just took a little break from writing this to listen to another glorious Michael Ball version.

My tears started. Plop. Plop. Plop. They wouldn’t stop. My mother held my hand and my tears plopped even more. They stopped only when the duet went into Time to Say Goodbye, during which my tears turned to hysterical laughter (it’s a thin line between the two), as I felt it a tad inappropriate for a 90th birthday.

Anyway, I recovered enough to get everyone up dancing, and a thoroughly good afternoon was had by all.

Reality is starting to hit home (or should that be away from home?) now. Travelling back from London to Cardiff this week, I realised that this was the last time I would be taking the journey with no permanent residence awaiting me at the other end. I even went to see a Cardiff Bay apartment I thought I might like to rent, to alleviate, or at least sideline, the emotions I suspect I will feel on the day of completion. I decided against it and returned to packing boxes. I will, however, have to take a storage unit for my personal effects and a small amount of furniture I want to keep in case I need a UK base at some point.

This means that by the end of the month, I will have storage units in Cardiff and Los Angeles, although I will be living in New York. Yes, I know it sounds daft, but storage is cheaper than renting another place. There is stuff I just can’t bear to part with – so many memories that are part of who I am. 

Who knows, I might need those reminders in advancing years, when there is a nurse shouting at me in the Last Home Saloon:  “What’s a book?”

So I’m thinking of my new life as Storage With Benefits: it serves a purpose because I know it’s always there, should I need it. 

They are units that house millions of moments of times gone by, all of them special and meaningful in their individual ways. Memory boxes.

But still I must look forward and focus on so much that is promised in the future. 

Maybe this is the moment. 

And maybe that, too, was why my tears fell.


Friday, March 4, 2016

Everything that Glitters is Sometimes Plastic

Ahhhhhh. Clearing the shelves in my attic, I find two oval shapes: blue at the bottom, clear at the top, with tiny shells embedded in each.
Plasticraft. Toy of the Year in 1972 when I was 14. Not since Santa had delivered the board game Mouse Trap when I was five had I been this excited. I think.
I probably had been, but every Christmas brought a new joy that filled me with such all-consuming toy lust, I was consumed by its new mystery (it’s not hard to see why Woody was put out when Buzz Lightyear arrived in Toy Story). Booby Trap – blue and yellow bobbles you had to extract from a trap without letting the whole thing blow up in your face and blinding you on Boxing Day; Pick-a-Stick (ditto – if the trap didn’t get you, the spears would); Hats Off, a gentler game perfected by our tiny poodle Emma, whose paw stayed on the plastic hats’ launch pads long after I had moved on to my next adventure.
Plasticraft was the first toy I remember that enabled me to make something. The John Bull Printing Set of my early childhood had come close. It consisted of rubber letters that you stuck on a rack, pressed on a pad of ink, and then watch as the imprint magically appeared on a piece of blank paper. The word made flesh. It was my first publication.
The art-work that will go down in history as my Plastics Period was altogether more adventurous. Now, instead of my hands being covered in ink that I couldn’t get off for days, they were glued together with dripping colours that might well cripple my fingers for life.
But I loved it – especially the sea life I created in each key ring, paperweight (they couldn’t have held down a dead fly, to be honest), or ornament. Ever impatient, I sat for hours waiting for the blue sea level to set before I could pour on the clear plastic that would create the arena of an aquarium. Today, I hold them in my hands, unable to part with these jewels, and remembering, as if it were yesterday, the smell of roast turkey, mince pies and molten plastic that was the purest pleasure my fingers ever tasted.
I have them in my possession because they were gifts I gave to my grandmother and, when she died, I took them when clearing her house. They were still in pride of place alongside the photograph she had when she and Grandpa won a prize for their garden in the Old Globe, the pub they managed in Rogerstone, near Newport.
Without life experience, do our primal sensations make more of an impression when we are young? I remember the smell of freshly cut grass at Cefn Mably Hospital where Grandpa died in June when I was 13, asking my mother “Do you think he’s going to be all right?” and hearing, through her tears, “No, I don’t.” 

Is it just in my imagination that I recall the smell of dark wood and the touch of the sticky sugar imprint of the Lucozade bottle on his bedside table before he went into hospital for what would be the last time? Could I ever forget the smell of freshly baked Cornish pasties baking in the downstairs kitchen when I stayed at the Globe – my grandmother up at the crack of dawn cooking for the lunchtime rush?
Plasticraft holds Grandma’s life in my hands: a woman who worked tirelessly her whole life, brought up three daughters during a war, and who I never heard complain. I am moved to tears now, finding things she also gave to me. There’s a picture of clowns, in various facial expressions of sadness and joy (“She’s got your number,” said a friend, at the time); my Children’s Bible; A Chid’s Garden of Verses, by Robert Louis Stevenson; and, my favourite, A Book of Girls’ Stories.
Re-reading the tales, these are not just any girls: if they have a horse, they are not going to be content trotting around a field: they are going to win that damned gymkhana. Yes, every girl is a winner. Was this, in my early teens, where I discovered the ambitious streak that propelled me forward? I never had a horse, but I was always in it for the race. I still am.
I pack my shells in plastic carefully, with bubble wrap, even though I know they don’t need it. Along with my grandmother’s gold watch and my grandfather’s banjo, they are the only material things I have left that belonged to them. But I have Girls’ Stories, and a grandmother who clearly understood me and took pleasure in the life I was about to live and she could never have. 

No bitterness, though. Get on that horse, girl, and Giddyup. It’s a long ride, but it’ll be worth it. 

Bless you, Grandma, Elsie May Culliford. I will remember you forever.